The party in Austin, Texas, might still be going on. Alexis DeJoria is the ninth Funny Car winner of the season, the second out of Kalitta Motorsports, and now holds a tenuous grasp on 10th place with only one race to go in the "regular" season. It has been a wild ride for the driver of the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry, but that’s hardly anything new.
She got her fifth career Fuel Funny Car victory thanks to a pair of runs in the 3.80s, the sixth and seventh of her career. Here’s how big of a deal it is to get a Funny Car that runs in the 3.80s: Following the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, there have been 58 eliminations runs quicker than 3.9 seconds.* The win light has turned on for 53 of them. That’s a winning percentage of 91.4.
If your favorite driver made one of the 119 passes between 3.9 and 3.999 seconds this season, their winning percentage is 65.6 percent. The 108 runs between 4.0 and 4.199 seconds boast a winning percentage of 57.4 percent. The 56 passes from 4.2 and 4.499 resulted in those gold lights turning on 42.9 percent of the time, and anything slower than that … well, it’s not pretty. Drivers won 16.3 percent of the time on 141 runs I classify as “unsuccessful.”
There are a couple of things to learn from those numbers: First, getting down the track matters. That’s why crew chiefs like Rahn Tobler make the big bucks. They don’t smoke the tires very often and prioritize smooth cuts over home run swings. Second, a tenth of a second is worth a lot more going from 3.9 to 3.8 than it is going from 4.2 to 4.1. Enter DeJoria.
Since winning in Las Vegas in 2016, the Tequila Patrón team has gone through a meat grinder. While I’m focusing primarily on the great job co-crew chiefs Tommy DeLago and Nicky Boninfante have done to get the Funny Car up to speed, it would be foolish to not acknowledge everything else the crew has gone through.
DeJoria has missed six races (three this season and three in 2016) from a combination of health and personal reasons. The driver turned on the red-light three times last season, battled concussions symptoms, and failed to defend her Las Vegas title at the fall event after hitting the wall during qualifying. To say 2016 was tumultuous would be a bit of an understatement, but DeJoria has always been one of the most resilient drivers in the sport.
So it should come as no surprise that even after missing three races this season, DeJoria worked her way back into 10th place with only the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals to go. Boninfante and DeLago chipped away at the combination for this very consistent Funny Car; it helps that DeJoria keeps the car in the groove and gets the flopper down the track. The Toyota Camry makes it to the finish line quicker than 4.5 seconds in 83 percent of its eliminations round attempts.
The team ran in the 3.80s in qualifying during the first event of the 2017 season, the Circle K NHRA Winternationals. That 3.879-second pass stands as the second-best of her career, .004-second quicker than the run that defeated Cruz Pedregon in the second round in Brainerd, but .004 second slower than her first .004 run in the 3.80s during the 2016 Topeka event. But that second round was symbolic of something bigger — the Patrón team had its race car back.
“I can tell you when I got back to the pit, I ran into the crew chief lounge, and I jumped on both, and I shook ‘em —and they didn’t get hurt — but it was just incredible,” said DeJoria.
For a follow-up performance, DeJoria ran a 3.892 in the semifinals against John Force. She slowed to 3.906 in the final against Tommy Johnson Jr., but that was enough to win the second-closest Funny Car final of the season (.0047-second margin of victory). Below, you can see all of DeJoria’s elapsed times quicker than 4.1 seconds from her win in 2016 through her win in Brainerd.
That steady progression, with a few hiccups thrown in there (welcome to Funny Car), is about what it takes to be successful in this class. It can be frustrating while watching duos like Robert Hight and Jimmy Prock throw down the first-ever 3.7 run in history, but credit the patience of DeLago, Boninfante, and DeJoria for staying the course through the tough times.
With a fresh Wally, a spot in the top 10, and all the momentum in the world on their side, they look like the favorites of the Countdown hopefuls to make the dance. They’ve made things interesting, but nobody likes a boring race.
*None of these stats include the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte because it’s a nightmare for win percentage statistics. I'm sorry.